Pr Serge Hercberg1,2, Dr Pilar Galan1, Dr Mathilde Touvier1, Manon Egnell1, Dr Chantal Julia1,2
1 Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN), U1153 Inserm/Inra/ Cnam/ Université Paris 13 2 Department of Public Health, Hôpital Avicenne, AP-HP
After a multi-year battle, the nutrition label Nutri-Score was officially adopted by public health authorities in France in October 2017, and more recently in several other European countries (Belgium and Spain). Displayed on the front-of-pack, this label aims to inform consumers, at a glance, about the overall nutritional quality of foods and encourage towards healthier choices at the point of purchase by helping consumers to compare the nutritional quality of foods. The second objective of the Nutri-Score label is to motivate manufacturers to improve nutritional quality of their food through reformulations and/or innovations to be better positioned on the Nutri-Score color scale. Nutri-Score is supported by a comprehensive scientific background. Indeed, more than 35 studies were published during the last years in international peer-reviewed scientific journals validating both the underlying algorithm of the Nutri-Score and its graphical design, and thus demonstrating its effectiveness and superiority compared to other existing labels, including those proposed by various economic operators.
Today, however, the uptake of the Nutri-Score entirely depends on the goodwill of manufacturers who can refuse to ensure a complete transparency of the nutritional quality of their products. Indeed, due to a specific European regulation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers) voted a few years ago (and drafted in a context of very strong pressures from powerful lobbies), member-states cannot make a front-of-pack nutrition label such as Nutri-Score compulsory in their country. Hence, even if many agro-alimentary firms and major retailers have agreed to apply the label on their products since its official adoption by the French government (and then in Belgium and Spain), large multinational food companies (e.g. Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Mars, Unilever, Mondelez, Ferrero and Kellogg’s) are still refusing to display the Nutri-Score label. Coca-Cola has even recently adopted a labelling system of multiple traffic lights on its products in France, entering into competition with Nutri-Score and potentially leading to confusion among consumers…
Rejecting Nutri-Score may not be entirely without an afterthought. The food portfolio of these companies contains a large numbers of sweet, fat or salty products, thus classified in D or E on the Nutri-Score scale, including soft drinks, chocolate bars, confectionery, sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, ice cream, and appetizers. For example, for Mars and Ferrero, 100% of their products are classified in D or E; for Mondelez, it is 86% of their products; 54% for Coca-Cola; 52% for Unilever; 50% for Kellogg’s and 46% for PepsiCo (https://theconversation.com/logo-nutritionnel-pourquoi-certains-industriels-font-de-la-resistance-87424).
Some of these large companies continue by all possible avenues to block the adoption of Nutri-Score at the European level, through different convergent strategies. These strategies include the proposals of alternatives to the Nutri-Score which, unsurprisingly, tend to favor their products. This is the case for example of the Evolved Nutrition Label (derived from the British Multiple Traffic Light) which, by a subtle manipulation of the original label (setting thresholds per serving rather than for 100 g/100ml), change the colors characterizing the nutrient contents of products, switch red signs into amber, and mislead the consumers on the actual nutritional quality of products. Other firms have proposed alternatives which appear very difficult for consumers to understand, such as the nutritional circles proposed by the association of German food manufacturers BLL, the Reference Intakes (GDA or RI) supported by many industrialists, or the battery system proposed by the Italian government (a country where the economic weight of powerful agro-food groups such as Ferrero or the processed meat and cheeses sectors is very important…). The Italian system appears to be even counter-intuitive, representing the nutrient content of foods through the icon traditionally used to monitor the load of electrical device, but curiously used in the Italian label in the opposite direction (the more the battery is «unloaded», the better the nutrient content of the food!). In addition to these alternatives that appear more favorable to them, big food companies aim to blur the message and to multiply labels, thus marginalizing Nutri-Score and preventing it from being officially adopted by many European countries.
Finally, among the strategies
put in place to discredit Nutri-Score and try to delay its deployment in
Europe, are conveyed many fake-news on social networks, sometimes picked up by media
outlets and by politicians opposed to Nutri-Score …
The mobilization of some politicians (national parliamentarians, MEPs and even ministers) is also a classic strategy used by these large food companies to block or delay the adoption of Nutri-Score at the level of member states. This has recently been seen in Germany, where the FoodWatch organization revealed internal emails from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (https://www.foodwatch.org/de/pressemitteilungen/2019/interne-e-mails-zeigen-julia-kloeckner-verheimlicht-studie-zur-naehrwertkennzeichnung/?L) in which the Minister of Agriculture (considered by consumer associations to be close to industry) refused to publish a scientific report commissioned from a research institute, considering that it was too much in favor of the Nutri-Score (the second report presented publicly by the Minister being much more nuanced…). This political lobbying has also been shown recently, on the eve of a Codex Alimentarius meeting, through an official statement from the WHO Italian Ambassador opposing a WHO technical report on nutrition labels, totally denying published scientific works, just to defend Italian food products (https://theconversation.com/etiquetage-nutritionnel-la-guerre-du-parmesan-et-du-prosciutto-116905)… A few months earlier, it was the Italian ambassador in Brussels who tried to convince the Belgian Minister of Health to renounce to adopt Nutri-Score.
While 116 companies (manufacturers and retailers) have, to date, agreed to display Nutri-Score on their products in France, which represents roughly 20-25% of the French food market (see list on the website of Santé Publique France: https://www.santepubliquefrance.fr/Sante-publique-France/Nutri-Score), and if others have done the same in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg and Spain, major multinationals food firms are still not ready to join this positive position. These large food companies opposed to Nutri-Score represent several hundred brands. The top 10 of the largest multinationals food companies in the world represent nearly 500 different brands (472 in 2015 according to OXFAM) which correspond to a very large part of the food supply available to European consumers. Of these 10 big companies, 8 refuse to display the Nutri-Score (only Danone and more recently Nestlé accepted).
Top 10 world’s largest food and beverage Companies (including their
Other food companies (outside of the Top 10) are also still reluctant to display Nutri-Score on their products such as Lactalis, Ferrero, Aoste, Bel, Lesieur, Bigard, Charal, Pasquier, Harris, and many other companies producing foods which are widely present in supermarkets. The refusal by companies to display Nutri-Score on their products represents a serious loss of opportunity for consumers to have access to a synthetic, simple and intuitive information for all products present in supermarkets or food stores. However, the desire for transparency on the nutritional quality of food is a strong demand from consumers, who are increasingly using mobile applications that offer this type of information even for brands which refused to display Nutri-Score on their packaging.
Consumers may pressure brands refusing to display Nutri-Score by avoiding or boycotting their products on the principle that “If they don’t display it, they have something to hide!” However the best solution for consumers in order to have a favorable purchasing environment allowing them to integrate the nutritional dimension into their purchasing behaviour, would be for all manufacturers and retailers to label their products . So making compulsory the display of Nutri-Score on foods appears necessary; and for that, amending the European regulation on consumer information (No 1169/2011) adopted in 2011 by the European Parliament which took effect on December 13th, 2014 would be required. This regulation adopted after several years of discussions, made the nutritional declaration mandatory as a table presenting, on the back of pack, the nutrient content of the food (studies have shown that it is rarely used by consumers, given the complexity of its presentation and interpretation) ; and, on the other hand, it also prohibits European states from the possibility of making mandatory an additional nutritional information system in the form of a front of pack label. Industry lobbies spent €1 billion in 2015 to prevent the introduction of a front-of-pack label at the European level (a figure never denied by the agro-food industry, and which is to be related to the 985 billion euros stirred by this sector).
Amending a European regulation
through the traditional political procedure, besides being subject to the
actions of the powerful lobbies who oppose it, is a particularly long, complex
and uncertain process.
But another procedure exists to push the European Commission (EC) to review its regulation, through the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI). This innovation of the Lisbon Treaty, implemented in May 2012 gives citizens an opportunity to urge the EC to draft new proposals for legislation on the basis of citizens’ requests, provided they gather at least one million EU signatures from at least one quarter of the member countries.
This is a unique opportunity to get the Commission’s attention and to make Nutri-Score mandatory in Europe.
Submitting a European citizens’
initiative requires specific conditions and the application needs to be
admissible and registered by the EC.
This is now the case with the European citizens’ initiative entitled «PRO-NUTRISCORE», launched at the initiative of 7 consumer associations members of BEUC (European Bureau of Consumer Associations): UFC-Que Choisir (France), Test-Achat (Belgium), VZBV (Germany), Consumentenbond (Netherlands), OCU (Spain), Federajca Konsumentow (Poland) and EKPIZO (Greece).
Registered May 8th 2019, under the
number ECI(2019)000008, its purpose is to ask the European Commission to impose
the label «Nutri-Score» on food products, to ensure a real quality of nutritional information provided to european
consumers and to protect their health with three objectives:
1. Make nutritional labelling easier
to read and understand, so that the nutritional value of a food can be
understood at a glance in the face of the diversity of food supply;
2. Take action on public health issues by encouraging professionals to improve
the composition of their products;
3. Harmonise nutritional information at European level by imposing a single
official labelling system, thereby putting an end to the confusion experienced
by European consumers when faced by the plethora of existing logos.
The registration of this European
citizens’ initiative is a first success (many are usually rejected). But there
is still a big challenge for this initiative to be completed, in less than a
year, with one million signatures distributed in at least 7 European countries
and registered on the European Commission’s website: http://www.pronutriscore.org
It is not a simple matter: only 4
out of 64 citizens’ initiatives proposed to the European Commission have been able
to get registered and to collect more than 1 million signatures. But
citizens/consumers have a real opportunity through this ICE to be heard by the
Commission. It is an element of participatory democracy in the functioning of
the European Union which can be a means of advancing public health for the
benefit of consumers and despite the lobbies that oppose it.
By clicking on the link http://www.pronutriscore.org, each citizen/consumer is directed to the secure server of the European Commission to register their signature. The data required to sign the petition (identity card or passport number) depends on each country and derives from the regulation on the European Citizens’ Initiative. Data are hosted by the European Commission in a secure space and are obviously not the subject of any exchange or transfer.
Researchers in the fields of Nutrition and Public Health strongly support this initiative of consumer associations. This is an exceptional opportunity for citizens to weigh on the European Commission so that the benefits of this public health measure are taken into account and take precedence over purely economic interests. We can therefore hope that the Nutri-Score will be, in a near future, on all food products available to consumers in Europe, allowing them to integrate the nutritional dimension into their purchasing acts. By this simple measure, consumers will have the opportunity in their daily lives to improve their food choices and move towards healthier nutritional intakes while having access to a better nutritional quality of food supply. This is important given the major public health issues related to nutrition and in particular its recognized major role in the risk or protection against chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, obesity, diabetes, etc. This nutritional transparency, which is so useful for health, has to be considered as a right of consumers and a duty of those who manufacture or distribute foods, who must in no way be able to avoid it.
For all these reasons, we need to sign this citizen petition. We are signing it and inviting you to do the same: http://www.pronutriscore.org
1 Université Paris 13, Equipe de Recherche en Epidémiologie Nutritionnelle (EREN), Centre d’Epidémiologie et Biostatistiques Sorbonne Paris Cité (CRESS), Inserm U1153, Inra U1125, Cnam, COMUE Sorbonne-Paris-Cité, F-93017 Bobigny, France
2 Département de Santé Publique, Hôpital Avicenne (AP-HP), F-93017 Bobigny, France
Over the past few months, a number of negative opinions and misleading information about the front-of-pack nutrition label Nutri-Score (adopted by France in 2017, and more recently by Belgium, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands) have been circulating on social networks, in various media and sometimes even in the words of leading political figures. This phenomenon has been particularly marked in recent weeks, probably in connection with the current highly publicized debates in several European countries currently considering implementing a FOP nutrition label, and in view of of the discussions taking place in the European Community bodies in Brussels.
bubbling period, the tactics intended to destroy the credibility of Nutri-Score
in order to avoid its adoption in European countries appear to be multiplying… Disregarding a convincing scientific record of
more than 30 international publications validating its underlying algorithm and
its graphical design and demonstrating its efficiency and superiority over other
FOP labels on several dimensions of consumer behaviour, and despite its large
support by multiple European consumer associations Nutri-Score is still stongly
rejected by certain agro-industry lobbys (association of food manufacturers
FEVIA in Belgium, BLL in Germany, Coldiretti in Italy, etc.).
some manufacturers and distributors in France, Belgium, Spain, but also in
Germany, Austria, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovenia, etc. have chosen to display the
Nutri-Score on their products, very strong oppositions of some large
multinational agri-business companies who refuse the idea of using the
Nutri-Score persists. They have established strategies to torpedo Nutri-Score,
for example, by proposing alternative labels they developed themselves and
appear more favourable to them : ENL at the European level, BLL circles in
Germany, …. To that end, the false news («fake news») targeting the
Nutri-Score play into the hands of these big international food companies who
want to discredit it. Fake news also originate or are relayed by all kinds of influencers
or Internet users who do not disseminate evidence-based information but rather their
own personal opinions that, through a few details blown up out of all
proportion, aim is to destroy the credibility of the whole system.
misinformation about Nutri-Score currently circulating on social networks and
in some media are clearly different from the legitimate criticism that is part
of a useful scientific debate (particularly on the limitations of the system),
both in their objectives and in their form. False news is characterised by the
fact that the information it conveys is misleading, and only seeks toraise
confusion. They are often limited to the juxtaposition of examples that may
each taken alone be right but which staging may contribute to sow doubt among
those who do not have sufficient knowledge about the Nutri-Score, and in particular how it is calculated and
Fake news therefore highlights a single example– and
often enough a peculiar one – , taken out of any context, using it to discredit
the whole system. They then circulate in the same form
(message or visual document), usually through a powerful image presented in a
pseudo-scientific form. The same image is
often accompanied by contemptuous or even insulting comments. Fake news are often put online or
relayed by « anonymous » users or by individuals who rely on the same
information (often the same image) to give their personal opinion (in some
cases probably deceived themselves by the information or insufficiently
informed to recognize the fake news). What is spectacular is that this
misinformation ends up being taken up as scientific elements by some media (even
well established ones) and by all those
who have an interest in using it (lobbies, scientists with links of interest
with economic operators, political personalities, even ministers, etc.).
of false information about the Nutri-Score and the fact that it is relayed by
different issuers imply different mechanisms:
uptake of examples of comparisons of the Nutri-Score on a very limited number
of foods, always the same, which are displayed together and staged in order to
give the impression that the Nutri-ScoreScore would classify absurdly the
nutritional quality or the health value of foods, and therefore mislead
consumers… It is interesting to note that the examples used are always based
on the same brand name foods (less than 15 brand foods, while more than 200,000
products may be used tocalculate the Nutri-Score) and which are intended to
impress people using their popular perception (traditional foods deemed to be
healthy, industrial foods deemed to be unhealthy, etc.) and by binary
comparison (well or badly classified). At no time are the detractors reporting
that Nutri-Score does not pose a problem for more than 99.9% of other foods !
The lack of knowledge or the denial of what can be expected from
Nutri-Score (or any other front-of-pack nutrition label). Thus, either
voluntarily or not, they clearly do not incorporatethe the principle, the
objective, the constraints and the scope of action of a nutritional logo,
neither the set of scientific data pertaining to the validation of its
computational algorithm or its graphic format.
Below are presented various fake news that have appeared in recent months on social networks and for which we explain their lack of seriousness. For reasons of homogeneity we have translated into English the verbatims circulating in Spanish, English, Flemish, Italian or in French in social networks or in the press
1. Example of fake news based on
a real misunderstanding of the purpose of Nutri-Score
“Nutri-Score has no interest and
is misleading to the consumer, the proof is that some ultra-processed foods
containing additives or pesticides are well classified with Nutri-Score !”
This kind of criticism relates to the fact that
Nutri-Score does not include additives, degree of processing, or pesticides. This choice is fully assumed for
Nutri-Score as for all other FOP nutritional label (for more details see
article in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/le-nutriscore-mesure-la-qualite-nutritionnelle-des-aliments-et-cest-deja-beaucoup-99234), and is linked to the
impossibility, given current scientific knowledge, of developing a synthetic
indicator covering all the different health dimensions of foods. Nutri-Score refers
to a nutritional information system, which has been shown to be very useful in
helping consumers to be aware of the nutritional quality of foods and to direct
their choices towards foods of higher nutritional quality. But under no
circumstances does Nutri-Score claim to be an information system on the global
‘health’ dimension of food covering, in addition to the nutritional dimension,
the health and environmental dimensions.
To summarize the overall health dimensions of food through a single and reliable indicator, which would be able to predict overall health risk would be, obviously, the dream of any public health nutrition actor in the interest of consumers. But it is not by chance and certainly not by incompetence, if no international research team or public health structure in the world, or any committee of independent national or international experts, nor has the WHO, been able to develop such a synthetic indicator. This can be explained by several reasons:
1) First, the level of evidence concerning the links with health differs according the dimension considered for food. The accumulation of numerous epidemiological, clinical and experimental studies providefor certain nutritional components (nutrients/foods) a documented and robust level of evidence of their impact on chronic disease risk ranging from “probable” to “convincing” in international classifications.For the other dimensions, in particular those referring to numerous additives, neoformed compounds or contaminants (pesticides, antibiotics, endocrine disruptors, etc.), while some hypotheses of their impact on health have been raised, their underlying levels of evidence differ greatly (especially in terms of human studies).
2) As a result of the above, it is currently impossible to weight the relative contribution of each dimension of a food, to provide a synthetic score that would ideally be predictive of an overall health risk level. Some apps may offer it, but they have no valid and robust scientific basis. The methodological questions are numerous and still unresolved: precise measurement of the risk attributable to each of the dimensions, to each of the various components potentially incriminated, potential cocktail effect, etc. In fact, calculating a single index to characterize the overall health quality of a food, which could ultimately lead to an absolute judgement is not based on sufficiently solid scientific bases and is therefore rather arbitrary.
Finally, with regard to additives and pesticides, where there is a sufficient body of evidence for a health risk, the answer from a public health point of view is not the information of the consumer through a logo, but the removal of the element in question from the food chain, according to a health risk management principle. This is the case today for the controversial additive E171, for which a withdrawal has been announced very recently by the French authorities.
complex this issue may be, this does not preclude, as part of an effective
public health nutrition policy, to recommend, as it is done in the food-based
dietary guidelines available for the general population to choose foods with
the best Nutri-Score, without or with the shortest list of additives (in the
list of ingredients) and to prefer unprocessed foods and, if possible, organic
(with a certifying logo).
2. An example of fake news based on pseudo
contradictions in the ability of Nutri-Score to classify foods according to
their nutritional qualities
“Nutri-Score is false, the proof: fries that
are not good for health are better ranked than sardines that contain lots of
good components; or olive oil is less well ranked than
We have to
keep in mind that the purpose of a FOP nutrition label such as Nutri-Score is
not to classify foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy”, in absolute terms, as a
binary nutritional logo would do (good vs. bad). Such a purpose for a nutritional logo remains
totally questionable since this property is linked to the amount of food consumed
and the frequency of its consumption, but also to the overall dietary balance
of individuals (a nutritional balance is not achieved on the consumption of a single
food item, nor on a meal or even on a day…). These complex concepts cannot, of
course, be summarized by a nutritional logo attributed to a specific product of
a given brand…
The real purpose
of Nutri-Score is to provide consumers with information, in relative terms,
that allows them, at a glance, to compare easily the nutritional quality of
food, which is already a very important point to guide their choices at the
time of the act of purchase. But this comparison between foods is of interest
only if it is relevant, especially if it concerns foods which the consumer needs
to compare in real life situations (at the time of his act of purchase or his consumption).
Moreover, by definition, the Nutri-Score does not
invent anything. It simply reproduces in a synthetic form the elements of
nutritional composition that appear on the mandatory nutritional declaration at
the back of the package.
And on the contrary, fake news will try to divert the interest of the
Nutri-Score by highlighting pseudo-contradictions based on non relevant comparisons
of specific foods… For instance, here is one of the pictures
that circulates most often on social networks that are widely promoted by
Internet users, certain media, lobbyes and politicians.
principle of this picture (shared many times in the social networks) is to
caricature the Nutri-Score suggesting that certain categories of industrial
products would be classified as « healthy foods » and better ranked
than “traditional” foods that would be considered “unhealthy” (“Unhealthy
Nutri-Score makes it possible
to compare the nutritional quality of foods, but on condition that these
comparisons are relevant and useful to consumers to guide their choices. Here again it is worth remembering that
Nutri-Score makes it possible to compare nutritional quality:
1) of foods belonging to the same category, for example in the family of breakfast cereals comparing mueslis versus chocolate cereals, versus chocolate and filled cereals; compare dry cookies vs. fruit cookies vs. chocolate cookies; or meat lasagna, salmon lasagna, spinach lasagna; or different pasta dishes; different types of pizzas; or different types of beverages (water, fruit juices, fruit drinks, sodas, etc. ). In each of these categories the Nutri-Score will vary from A to E, which provides useful information for consumers for their choices
2) of the same type of food proposed
by different brands (e.g., comparing chocolate and filled cereal from one brand
to its “equivalent” from another brand or chocolate cookies from different
brands). Here again, Nutri-Score can vary from A to E, which is also a useful
information to help consumers to discriminate similar foods according to their nutritional
3) of foods belonging to different families provided there is a real relevance in their conditions of use or consumption (and which are often close in supermarket shelves): yogurts versus dessert creams; breakfast cereals versus biscuits, bread or industrial pastries…
But what is the meaning, as the
fake news does, to compare French fries to Roquefort, breakfast cereals to
sardines or olive oil to Coca Cola Zero? Does the question really arise in this way
for consumers at the time of their act of purchase or their food consumption?
It is very unlikely that a consumer would consider eating sardines for
breakfast, seasoning his salad with Coca-Cola or refreshing himself with olive
oil… In reality, the consumer needs to be able to compare the nutritional quality
of foods that have relevance to substitute in their consumption. If he wants to choose the elements of his breakfast,
it is important that he should be able to compare foods of different categories
but which are traditionally consumed on this occasion, for example bread,
pastries, breakfast cereals or cookies. And of course he needs to have access
to transparency on the nutritional quality within the categories or according
to brands, in order to be able to compare different breakfast cereals between
them, or the various industrial pastries or the breads depending on the brands…
In this context,
the Nutri-Score works perfectly as shown in the examples below.
example: different foods belonging to different categories but usually eaten at breakfast.
example, which includes only a few of the many foods concerned, it is clear at
a glance that when comparing several categories of food, among the options for
breakfast, some are more favourable than others: whole breads or some mueslis
are better classified than cookies or pastries. In addition,
depending on the type of bread (complete or not), the type of biscuits or
breakfast cereals, there may be significant variations in nutritional quality. For example within the breakfast cereal category,
there is a very high variability in nutritional quality with Nutri-Score
ranging from A to E depending on the type of cereal (the same applies to
equivalent breakfast cereals but with
of fake news gives the feeling that the Nutri-Score is not consistent in terms
of nutritional classification of foods only by comparing foods that have no
reason to be compared with each other while omitting the main interest of the
Nutri-Score for the consumer, namely, comparing foods under relevant
conditions. The other element of deception underlying the fake news is based on
playing with stereotypes in terms of food belief or perception.
The image of French fries (often linked to fast-foods)
is, in the popular belief, rather perceived as unfavorable from a nutritional
point of view, while that of “traditional” foods such as Roquefort, Serrano ham
or sardines (just like smoked salmon) have a rather favourable perception. Yet it is enough to look at the nutritional
declaration on the back of pack of these foods to realize the reality of the
nutritional composition. It is quite normal that
Roquefort or Serrano ham should be classified E, given their very high content in
saturated fats and salt. In the same way
that smoked salmon is classified as D, which is widely used as a critique of
Nutri-Score, is quite « normal » given its salt high content (2.5 to
3.5 g of salt per 100 g), unlike fresh salmon, which is classified as A, which
is never indicated in the fake news mocking the classification of smoked salmon
Again, there are very large differences in nutritional quality within the
food categories (different cheeses, different hams, etc.) or for the same food
depending on the preparation and brand. If
Roquefort is classified in E (it contains a high quanity of salt and saturated fats),
the majority of cheeses are classified in D and some in C (for example
mozzarella). Even for ham, for example
Serrano ham can be E or D (depending on the brand), and other types of ham are
classified in D or C.
For sardines, widely used in fake news to question the interest of Nutri-Score (always through the same image of the same brand), if some brands are actually classified in D, other canned sardines will go from A to D according to their nutritional composition. So we can see that is not honest to suggest that sardines are systematically classified in D by the Nutri-Score…
Specific problems with French fries
Remarks made in the
fake news about French fries imply both irrational perception of this type of
food (negative image linked to fast-food) and there, again, on the
misunderstanding of how a nutritional logo is established and what its role can
be. Indeed, by definition, the Nutri-Score (like all other
FOP nutrition labels) is, in fact, only a translation of the declared nutritional
values present on the back of the
package, which refers to foods as sold. The manufacturer is required to be
transparent about the nutritional composition of foods which are placed on the
market, but the latter cannot take into account and/or anticipate the
variability of the methods of preparation, use or consumption for its product.
For Nutri-Score, only foods that require a specific reconstitution, according
to a standardized recipe (mashed potatoes flakes, dry preparations for cakes), have to give a Nutri-Score calculated on the
basis of the standardized recipe.
However, for frozen French fries
several cooking methods are possible. Cooking in the oven frozen pre-cooked
fries (usually classified B by Nutri-Score) has no impact on the nutritional
composition, so the Nutri-Score is not modified in this case after cooking (it remains
B). On the other hand, for frozen French fries (not pre-cooked) usually
classified A by Nutri-Score (they are simply peeled and cut potatoes), the
cooking method information given on the packaging recommends using a fryer.
Under these conditions, the Nutri-Score will change, depending on the cooking
oils (more or less rich in saturated fatty acids) from A to B or maximum to C.
The subsequent addition of salt may also affect the note, but cannot reasonably
be anticipated upon purchase of the product. These elements show both the
interest of Nutri-Score, which helps to inform consumers on the reality of
nutritional composition and to combat certain stereotypes or misconceptions: in
the example of French fries widely used in fake news, those pre-cooked have rather
a favourable nutritional composition and even those not pre-cooked remain
nutritionally correct even using a fryer (classified B or maximum C). However,
it appears necessary in the case of foods that cannot be consumed as purchased
(such as frozen, uncooked fries), and only for those which a specific and
detailed method of cooking is given on the packaging that could impact the
Nutri-Score, that the manufacturer alerts consumers to the modification induced
on the Nutri-Score by giving 1) the Nutri-Score of the product as sold (classical
use of Nutri-Score using the elements that are on the nutritional declaration)
and 2) a statement on the final score (presenting the final letter) of the Nutri-Score obtained
by the product after cooking according to the recommended mode indicated on the
package (for French fries the modification leads to a higher class of
Nutri-Score after passing in deep fryer).
It is clear, contrary to what fake
news conveys, that Nutri-Score makes it possible to distinguish easily, at a
glance, the nutritional quality of foods and to compare foods with each other,
to help consumers to choose a more nutritionally favourable alternative either
in another category corresponding to the intended use of the food, either in
the same category by choosing a better Nutri-Score or the brand offering the
It is also essential to remind a major rule of Nutri-Score, which never appears in fake news: the fact of being classified D and E for a food does not mean that it should not be consumed at all. In the context of a balanced diet, it can be integrated but the informed consumer will know, if he does not wish to choose an alternative of better nutritional quality and wishes to maintain his choice for a product D and E, it is better to consume it in smaller quantities and/or less frequently.
Is the classification issued of the specific foods displayed in the fake news, such as the comparison between olive oil and zero Coca-Cola, specific to Nutri-Score? How do the other logos classify them?
As all FOP nutrition labels are based on the data corresponding to their nutritional composition, all colour-coded logos such as the Traffic Light in the United Kingdom or the ENL supported by certain international food companies, describe two “red” messages for olive oil based on its saturated and total fat composition, whereas zero Coca-Cola has 4 “green”. Similarly, in the case of health warnings endorded in Chile, Canada or Israel, Coca-Cola zero displays no warnings. So whatever the system, olive oil is less well-classified than Coca Cola Zero given its content in calories, total fats and saturated fats. But curiously if this criticism is raised strongly for Nutri-Score, no one was ever offended by this classification for the British Traffic Lights Multiples and this did not pose any problems for consumers of the retailers that already use for many years this type of logo (in United Kingdom, Spain or Portugal) and also place with their system, olive oil worse than Coca-Cola zero.
4. Fake news about the fact that the
Nutri-Score would be appropriate to France and not to other European countries
« The Nutri-Score is purely French and not adapted to other European countries. As a matter of fact, the adjustments made in his calculation were made to please his cheese sector»
Another fake news circulating on the internet is the fact that France made a specific exception on the calculation of the algorithm for cheeses in order to improve the image of French cheeses that are part of its culinary heritage! This is of course totally wrong. In fact, during its development in 2015-2016, the Nutri-Score underwent marginal adjustments that did not change the elements taken into account for the calculation of the final score which allows to assign the different colors of the Nutri-Score to foods. The « negative » elements of the calculation are those which are included in the mandatory nutritional declaration at European level and which are mentioned in the mandatory labelling on the back of the packaging (calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, which are otherwise the only elements available for all foods). Minor adjustments to the method of calculation were realized by the French High Council for Public Health for cheeses, added fats and beverages.This comes from the fact that after the analysis in 2015 of the French Food Safety Agency (ANSES) these 3 categories (these are indeed categories no specific foods) have been recognised as raising specific problems that were easy to solve (without calling into question the choice of nutrients used in the calculation of the algorithm):
because of their high saturated fatty acid composition, the protein content
(used as a proxy to reflect the calcium and iron
content of foods in the Nutri-Score calculation algorithm) was not integrated
in the calculation of the score underlying the Nutri-Score. So all cheeses were
ranked in E. Yet, cheese is an important source of calcium. As a result, it was considered that the
algorithm presented an inconsistency, since it did not take into account the
contribution of cheese to calcium intakes. Similarly,the
initial calculation did not permit to distinguish differences in salt and/or
fat content. With
the change, the vast majority of cheeses (French or not) are classified in D
(which is consistent with the nutritional recommendations that aim not to push
to overly high cheese consumption), going further from C (for low-salt fresh
cheeses) to E (for salted ripened cheeses).
2. All the added fats were classified in the
same Nutri-Score category, but it was clear that it is relevant to discriminate
between animal fats richer in saturated fatty acids (such as butter) and
vegetable fats less rich in saturated fats (oil, margarines), consistent with food-based
dietary guidelines for the general population. The modification made to the algorithm
permits to discriminate between the two groups since animal fats are all in E
(with palm and coco oil), unlike vegetable oils and vegetable margarines which
are better classified (in D or C).
3. For beverages the change made to the original
algorithm was related to the fact that beverages have a different density from
solid products, and that most contain mainly sugar. Adaptation was carried out mainly to ensure
that water was the only drink classified as A (and to prevent sweetened drinks
from being classified at the same level as water, given the components taken
into account in the calculation).
5. What lessons can be learned from these food comparison
problems conveyed by fake news
Even if, as previously mentioned,
the (not justified) comparison of nutritional scores of certain foods is not
adapted and appears as an irrelevant criticism in terms of practical reality
(like comparisons between Coca-Cola Zero and olive oil ), and although
Nutri-Score works perfectly for the very large majority of foods, the
nutritional positioning of a limited number of foods in the Nutri-Score scale (related to the
calculation of its basic algorithm) nevertheless raises real issues in terms of public health which the scientists
working in the design of the system since its inception are fully aware of.
Even if they are not of the same nature as those raised by fake news, some
elements concerning the positioning of some rare foods with regard to public
health recommendations require a short or medium-term reaction:
– For olive oil, it is not so much an irrelevant comparison with other foods(which have nothing to do in term of use) which is a real problem, but even if olive oil was initially, of course, better placed than animal fats (classified E) or very rich oils in saturated fatty acids (coconut, palm, etc.), it was less well classified than rapeseed oils (which are classified in C).However, the nutritional recommendations of public health in almost all European countries aim at favouring vegetable fats rather than animal fats (which is covered by the initial form of Nutri-Score), but also recommend that olive, rapeseed and walnut oils be preferred among vegetable oils (which is not the case, as olive oil and walnut oil are less well-classified than rapeseed oil).
Discussions with various researchers in France and Europe have permitted to correct this anomaly of the Nutri-Score, by valuing olive and nut oils in thepositive points of the algorithm (but without modifying it). Olive and nut oils is then classified in C as rapeseed oils and would be among the three best-classified oils … An amending decree of the decree of 31 October 2017 published 30 august 2019, gave the necessary consistency between the French nutritional recommendations (published by Santé Publique France in January 2019) but also European and global and the ranking of oils in the Nutri Score.
– For sweeteners, it is expected that this issue will be discussed again
during the review of Nutri-Score plan to be done at European level in 2021 and
in the context of the discussion with the various states that will be engaged
in the process. Possible loopholes that could be identified
in the use of Nutri-Score or possible progress in the construction of the
algorithm related to the evolution of scientific knowledge and/or the legal
situation in Europe (taking into account free sugars for instance, etc.) will
also be discussed for the future at the time of the review.
Moreover, it should also be clearly pointed out that Nutri-Score, like all FOP
nutrition labels, is only one of the elements of a public health nutritional
policy. It must benefit from educational support
(information, communication and education for the general public, health
professionals, social workers, education, etc.) as regards its use, its
meaning, its interest and its limits. It is complementary to other public health measures
and in particular all communication actions on generic consumption
recommendations in terms of unprocessed food and products containing as few
pesticides as possible (organic foods).
Finally, a debate
around the Nutri-Score is legitimate and it is important for everyone to be able
to make their voice heard and to be able to ask questions (scientists,
consumers, industrialists, journalists, specialists or laypersons, etc.), but
it is important that the debate remain constructive and honest. The Nutri-Score, both in its
construction and its validation, is based on a very solid scientific basis
(with more than 30 scientific publications in international peer-reviewed
journals) demonstrating its effectiveness and superiority over all other FOP
nutrition labels (which do not have such a compelling scientific record).
and disproportionate criticisms denying the multiple interests of Nutri-Score,
the lobbies’ strategy aims only to prevent the deployment of Nutri-Score in
Europe… to maintain the status quo,
which remains unconvincing and of little use to the consumer.